Souin Gyokusai seyo! is a "semi-autobiographical account of the desperate final weeks of a Japanese infantry unit at the end of World War II." Mizuki drew from his own experiences as a soldier in that war to depict the horrors of battle.
On an island at the end of 1943, Japanese soldiers are obliged to commit suicide in order to save the honor of their country.
Souin Gyokusai seyo! was published in English as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Drawn and Quarterly on April 26, 2011. It was awarded the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best U.S. Edition of International Material - Asia (2012)
Souin Gyokusai seyo or Onward towards our noble death is, as the title suggests, a tragic tale of a Japanese infantry unit sent to the battlefront on a suicide mission. Mizuki Shigeru, known for his works like Gegege no Kitarou, presents us a story based on the final stages of World War II when the war was brought to Japan’s doorsteps.
A regiment stationed at Kopoko is ordered to send one of its infantry units to retake Baien from the enemy. Upon their arrival to Baien they notice that it is deserted by the enemy, and soon after realize that they face a new challenge of
protecting this particular place from enemy’s infiltration (by enemy I’m referring to the countries which were against Japan in WW2). Thus, we follow the lives of men in this unit – how they survive in the brutal jungle while always under the fear of an imminent attack from the enemy. Mizuki’s representation of the hierarchy in the chain of command is precise; there is a clear distinction in the value of a high ranking officer from that of a foot soldier. The low ranking officers must follow the orders given to them regardless of how insipid the order may appear.
From the start, the atmosphere of the manga is kept akin to that of a real war. Starting from the day to day chores like cooking, washing, and the construction of a base etc. right uptil the mentality of the soldiers amidst all the periodic bombings from enemy fighter jets, the reader is slowly but surely engaged into the atmosphere of the manga.
The reader experiences a contrast in mentality through the characters. While the high ranking officers, like Lieutenant-Colonel Tadokoro, take pride in being soldiers and often talk about how dying on the battlefront is something like a samurai’s honor (Bushido – dying in a battle is the greatest of honor), the foot soldiers, on the other hand don’t share the same mindset of giving up their lives for the sole reason of pride and honor since they come from a civilian background and volunteer to be soldiers for reasons like their family’s name or earning their daily bread. They are more practical and share a broadminded approach of retreating and then attacking again with a better chance of survival. The characters are merely the author’s representation of how he perceives life and death on the battlefield.
Mizuki’s character designs are plain, absurd and often times identical to the point that the reader has to follow the dialogues with scrutiny in order to distinguish the characters. Comparatively, the background scenery and the landscapes are remarkably drawn and sometimes a single panel is sufficient to comprehend the situation. Art-wise a simple background is used in most panels so that the reader can easily discern the dialogues, though sometimes the picturesque background art of the forest is more than enough for the reader to appreciate the mangaka’s drawing skills.
Considering the fact that this graphic novel was published back in 1973, the quality of art is simply awe-inspiring, and is not in any way inferior to works published 40 years after it.
The strongest or perhaps the most emphatic aspect of the manga is the irony inherent in the title itself. From the title, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, the reader can easily predict where this manga will end up, but by portraying a man dying against his will, the mangaka tries to convey a message that a life coming to an end is nothing but saddening, no matter how much one romanticizes it as ‘a noble death’.
There may not be many overt reasons for you to pick up this manga, in terms of a compelling storyline or relatable characters or amazing action sequences; nonetheless, the setting of the story itself is very unique differentiating it from other formulaic plots seen in current manga industry offerings. If in any case you enjoy watching war documentaries then this manga will not disappoint you; just think of it as a three hour documentary, only instead of watching you would be reading it.
Note: If you decide to read this manga, make sure to read the afterword and Q&A section too because they present some interesting thoughts from the author which may address some of your questions.
There are many reasons to read Onward Towards our Noble Deaths, and it’s hard to pick which one to start with- a good problem to have. I’ll start by approaching the “single volume aspect.” I’ve read All You Need is Kill and Uzumaki, the two standalone omnibuses I see the most on people’s shelves, and would place Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths solidly above them both. About 350 pages, but since it was originally published in 1973, it follows the older style of having more frames per page a lot of the time, so it’s well filled, similar in that respect to the text-heavy
stories of Ohba & Obata (the duo that wrote Death Note and Bakuman), although in a different way that doesn’t have that same text-heavy feel.
It’s written by Shigeru Mizuki, and, as it says in the back of the book, is 90% fact (and then they tell you what exactly was changed from the actual happening). Shigeru Mizuki is one of Japan’s most legendary mangaka, on the same tier as Osamu Tezuka, (although I found OTND a little more processable by the modern reader than Adolf) although he’s only recently been introduced to the Western eye. He also happens to have been a soldier, who lost his left arm to the war, along with nearly dying to malaria, and those experiences form the basis of OTND. Mizuki’s art style is hands down better than anything I’ve read pre-90s. There’s a provocative contrast between the backgrounds, which are detailed on par with the best of modern artwork, and the characters, who use Mizuki’s distinct stylistic “cartoonish” rendering that’s reminiscent of Ping Pong, Tatami Galaxy, and other “unusual but better” styles (I haven’t read Oyasumi PunPun yet, but I’d imagine it’s similar conceptually to how that plays out with the main character. As a side note, in Urasawa’s Manben series about making manga, Mizuki gets mentioned a lot, and I think was referenced in the Inio Asano episode because of the similarities).
Without spoiling anything, I think I can safely say that OTND is about the tragic absurdity of war, with all the weight of the historical “this really happened” aspect, and a man who suffered greatly from its first-hand perspective. In some ways the themes parallel the classic film Bridge over the River Kwai, only coming from the Japanese soldier’s viewpoint, with the conversations of the characters usually feeling more like Full Metal Jacket. That’s really what’s astounding about OTND- seeing what the atmosphere was like for the “other side,” and the way that one senseless event led to another without anyone seeming to actually want to go down that path, you can’t escape the nagging question, “why did this have to happen?”
I want to keep this short, so let me just say that the omnibus is fantastically bound, and looks great on the shelf, as well as in your hands. It’s also nice how when there is a big 2 page spread they usually broke it up with panels so you don’t lose anything to the binding (there was once where they didn’t, I’m not sure why). It’s put out by Drawn & Quarterly, who I’d never heard of before, so they could probably use your support. I’ll definitely be getting more of their Mizuki as soon as I can.